A federal judge has issued a split ruling in a lawsuit filed over vote-by-mail in Utah’s largest county. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, backed by the ACLU of Utah, sued San Juan County over its decision to switch to vote-by-mail. They argue a reduced number of polling places burdens Navajo voters, who have to drive hours to vote. Navajo is also an unwritten language making vote-by-mail more difficult.
National: US Justice Department eyes voting rights changes for American Indians, Alaska Natives | Associated Press
The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking legislation that would require state and local election officials to work with American Indian tribes to locate at least one polling place on or near each tribe’s land. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the changes are needed because “significant and unnecessary barriers” exist for American Indians and Alaska Natives who want to cast ballots. American Indians sometimes have to travel great distances to vote, face language barriers and, in places like Alaska, do not have the same amount of time to vote as others. The Justice Department outlined its proposal in letters Thursday to House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden, after a year of consultation with tribes on voting access.
Editorials: South Dakota’s Last Stand—Ballot Boxes, Red Herrings and Custer Envy | Stephanie Woodard/ICTMN.com
Jackson County, South Dakota, has dug in for a fight against Oglala Sioux plaintiffs who sued for a full-service satellite voting office on the portion of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that overlaps the county. On May 11, Jackson County filed an answer to the Oglalas’ complaint. The document mostly reiterated legal arguments that had been rebuffed by U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier 10 days earlier, when she refused to dismiss the lawsuit, Poor Bear v. The County of Jackson. In her opinion, the judge wrote that the plaintiffs might be able to prove “intentional discrimination,” a Fourteenth Amendment violation. Judge Schreier presided over another Oglala voting-rights suit, Brooks v. Gant, which in 2012 resulted in satellite voting for another part of Pine Ridge.
The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal judge in South Dakota to not dismiss a lawsuit that tribal members filed against Jackson County in which they claim the county doesn’t give equal voting access to Native American voters. After the November election, the county’s attorneys filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier in Sioux Falls to toss the case arguing that the lawsuit does not contain proof that the county disenfranchised Native Americans — a protected class under the Voting Rights Act. But the federal agency believes the complaint shows otherwise.
Tribal voters on the Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations do not have increased access to early voting options this election season despite the settlement of a federal lawsuit that should have made it possible. Two of the three tribes affected by the settlement didn’t send a letter to the counties indicating what tribal building and room would be offered for the service by the Aug. 1 deadline. Northern Cheyenne tribal member Mark Wandering Medicine, along with 11 other Indian plaintiffs, in February 2013 sued Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and county elections officials in Blaine, Rosebud and Big Horn counties, alleging the defendants violated portions of the federal Voting Rights Act, which “prohibit voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in one of the language minority groups.” The plaintiffs argued their rights to equal access to voting were violated when McCulloch and county elections officials refused to set up satellite voting offices on remote Indian reservations in advance of the November 2012 presidential election.
Translators are scrambling this week to meet a Friday deadline ordered by a federal judge to provide outreach and poll workers with election materials and voting information that have been translated into Yup’ik or Gwich’in. Gwich’in translators Allan Hayton and Marilyn Savage in Fairbanks are finding the work challenging, KUAC reported. “Some of it is very technical language, legal jargon,” Hayton said. But Hayton and Savage are up to the task, having translated other materials, including Shakespeare, according to Hayton. “Marilyn and I worked last year translating King Lear into Gwich’in, so we’re used to difficult challenges but we’re happy to do this.”
A federal judge on Monday ordered the state to take additional steps to provide voting materials to Alaska Native voters with limited English for the upcoming election. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ordered the state to distribute translated announcements to be read on radio that include information on early voting, races and initiatives on the November ballot. The state, among other things, must make available on its website translations of election material in Yup’ik dialects and provide to outreach workers translations of such things as candidate statements, initiative summaries and pro and con statements on the initiatives. The Division of Elections also is to provide translations to the plaintiffs in the case to get their input.
Alaska: Judge: Election officials broke voting rights law; must help Yup’ik, Gwich’in voters | Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
State elections officials broke a federal voting rights law by failing to provide sufficient election information in Alaska Native languages, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday, causing the state to scramble for improvements before the November election. Attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of four Alaska Native village councils and two Native men alleging the state violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by failing to provide translated voting materials for voters who do not speak and read English. The villages — Venetie, Arctic Village, Togiak and Hooper Bay — as well as Manokotak resident Mike Toyukak and Alakanuk resident Fred Augustine, were denied their voting rights, because the state did not provide an election pamphlet translated to Gwich’in or Yup’ik, Gleason ruled.
Alaska Native voters in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Western Alaska gave the Yup’ik language primary ballot translations mixed reviews. All eight of the Yup’ik voters that KYUK talked with said they needed help understanding what they were voting on. Elder Jacob Nelson is originally from the coastal village of Kwigilingok. He moved to Bethel in the 1970′s and he speaks mostly Yup’ik, and very little English. He says leading up to Alaska’s primary election, he heard some information on the radio in his language about an oil tax referendum. “I only ever heard about the ballot initiative on radio, not from anyone else.”
A perfectly timed combination of negotiation and grassroots organizing has allowed numerous Native villages across Alaska to become absentee in-person voting locations for federal elections for the first time. That’s a sea change from just a few weeks ago, when voters in only about 30 Native villages had a way to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day, said Nicole Borromeo, general counsel of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Meanwhile, Alaska’s urban voters had 15 days to do so. The locations will be in place for the August primary. This transformation in voting access follows years of fruitless requests to the state for the election services by three groups: AFN, an organization of regional and village corporations, tribes and other entities; ANCSA Regional Association, a group of Native-corporation CEOs; and Get Out The Native Vote. “In late June, AFN and ANCSA sat down with the state and said, ‘we will sign up the locations,’” recalled Borromeo, who is Athabascan from McGrath Native Village. The state agreed, and the Native team began seeking groups and individuals to handle the election activities.
In a news conference on Thursday, July 10, North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger defended his strict reading of North Dakota voting law. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom Resource Center, representing those with disabilities, had called on Jaeger to rethink his interpretation, which allows voters to use a small number of forms of identification. The rights groups say this has unfairly burdened tribal and disabled voters. Heather Smith, the ACLU’s North and South Dakota director, said Jaeger’s interpretation had created the “strictest voter ID law in the nation.” She claimed it violates the Voting Rights Act and flies in the face of federal-court decisions striking down such laws.
A top Alaska elections official testifying in a federal Native voting rights trial disputed claims that villages with sizable populations of limited English speakers vote in lower proportions than elsewhere in the state. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai took the stand Wednesday as the state’s last witness in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by village tribal organizations and elders against her and other election officials. Fenumiai testified that most of the village precincts beat the state’s average turnout in the 2012 presidential election if only precinct-level turnout numbers were examined, the Anchorage Daily News (http://is.gd/5OYggI ) reported. Fenumiai’s office, however, provides more voter services in urban areas, such as easy access to early voting and absentee balloting. She said voters who cast absentee or early ballots aren’t counted in the turnout numbers of their home precincts.
Alaska: Expert in Native voting rights trial says Alaska has long history of discrimination | Anchorage
An expert testifying in the federal voting rights trial in Anchorage said Monday it’s possible to trace Alaska’s current failure to provide full language assistance to Native language speakers to territorial days when Alaska Natives were denied citizenship unless they renounced their own culture. “This represents the continuing organizational culture, looking at the law as something they’re forced to do, instead of looking at the policy goal of being sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate,” said University of Utah political science professor Daniel McCool. “It’s part of a pattern I see over a long period of time, a consistent culture — they’re going to fight this. When forced to do something, they’re going to do it, but only when they’ve been ordered to.”
The official who coordinated the Division of Election’s Yup’ik language program knew the translation for a radio announcement was off but suggested ignoring it anyway. Emails entered as exhibits during a federal voting-rights trial include a 2009 back-and-forth between the division’s then-language coordinator in Bethel, Dorie Wassilie, and her boss, Shelly Growden. The emails came in the midst of a prior lawsuit, settled in 2010. Wassilie, in her email, said the division would be criticized by the plaintiffs if they caught it, “but what the heck, it’s a similar word and hope that it goes right over their heads! :-)” Wassilie, a Yup’ik speaker, wrote to Growden. Growden, who does not speak Yup’ik, responded: “I too think it should be fine.”
Alaska: Trial opens in lawsuit claiming Alaska denied Native rights in voting material translations | Associated Press
A federal trial began this week in a voting rights lawsuit filed by several Alaska villages, alleging the state has failed to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Native languages. State officials denied voting rights to Alaskans with limited English proficiency because voting information lacked Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in translations, according to the lawsuit filed last year on behalf of four Native villages and elders with limited English skills. The state says elections officials have taken all reasonable steps to implement standards for voting materials for non-English speakers that are equivalent to those for English speakers. The state Division of Elections provides several methods of oral language assistance, a trial brief says.
National: Justice Department considers making request that would add polling sites to tribal lands | The Washington Post
The Justice Department is considering making a recommendation to Congress that would require any state or local election administrator whose territory includes part of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government. Associate Attorney General Tony West will announce the effort Monday morning at the National Congress of American Indians conference in Anchorage. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also will release a video Monday that will announce the Obama administration’s plans to consult with tribal governments on a legislative proposal that would ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have “a meaningful opportunity to claim their right to vote.”
South Dakota: Testimony reveals Native Americans still face obstacles at the polls | Rapid City Journal
Some people believe that intimidation of minority voters is a concern of the past, but testimony at a public hearing Thursday revealed concerns that Native Americans still face obstacles when it comes to getting to the polls. Rapid City resident Mark Lone Hill spoke during the National Commission on Voting Rights hearing at the Journey Museum about his experience voting in the 2012 general election. “I filled out my ballot and made sure everything was checked out. So I go up to put it in the box, then this lady comes up and says: ‘Hold on, I want to make sure you’re putting that in right,'” Lone Hill said. “I know I had it in right, but she pulls it out, takes out my ballot and looks at it, then she turned it over and looked at it up and down to see who I’m voting for,” he continued. “Then she says, ‘Oh OK, I just wanted to put it in for you.'” Lone Hill said he was the only Native American at the polling station, the Bethel Assembly of God in north Rapid, at the time. This woman did not approach any other voter to check their ballots, he said. At least not until later that evening when his father went to vote at the same place.
Helen McNeil remembers sitting in her grandmother’s living room in Juneau listening to her relatives talk about some people who’d recently moved in from the villages. When these people tried to register to vote in Juneau, they were presented with a literacy test. McNeil’s grandparents were officials in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood, which advocates for Native people’s rights in southeast Alaska. “They ended up going to the ANB hall, and getting an ANB representative to go with them and it was cleared up,” she said. “So they were able to register to vote.” But in the villages, she said, where ANB and ANS presence wasn’t always as strong as it was in Juneau, literacy tests were used to keep Natives from registering to vote. It was a problem that often came up for discussion at ANB meetings, she said.
For several months, Montana counties have been shelling out taxpayer dollars to fight a Native voting-rights lawsuit – Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch – and William Main wants to know why. A taxpayer himself and former chairman of Fort Belknap Indian Community, he thinks other Montanans will also want to learn how come they’re fighting a suit that may end up costing hundreds of thousands, or even a million dollars. To that end, Main has submitted advertisements to local newspapers in Blaine County, Rosebud and Big Horn counties. The three jurisdictions ended up in court after they refused prior to the 2012 election to set up one satellite early-voting station each on the Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations, respectively. Main has also demanded related financial records from local Blaine County. “There was no public hearing on whether this legal battle was advisable,” said Main, who listed the numerous taxes he pays—including property, income, gas, tobacco and more. He called the counties’ decision to fight the lawsuit “damn foolish,” especially since the cost of the voting stations was minimal. In Blaine County, he said, Fort Belknap offered space in a newly renovated, internet-ready courthouse, and a voting-rights group, Four Directions, agreed to pay other costs.
National: Experts Debate Effects of Voting Rights Act Provision on Native Americans | The Blog of Legal Times
Days before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, legal experts said they feared that striking it down would hurt Indian Country and Native American voters. Enacted in 1965 as a temporary provision, Section 5 freezes election practices or procedures in certain states and local governments, mostly in the south, until the new procedures have been subjected to review or “precleared” by the Justice Department or a federal court. Congress has since reauthorized Section 5 four times. Currently, it is set to expire in 2031. In order to make changes to their voting rules, the states in question must demonstrate that the rules do not have the purpose of discriminating — or that regardless of intent, that the new rules will not have a discriminatory effect — based on race or color, or against a “language minority group,” including persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage.
National: National tribal group focuses on voter ID laws, encourages registration in Indian Country | The Washington Post
New voter identification laws in a dozen states could negatively affect voter participation in Native American and Alaska Native communities, a tribal advocacy group says. The National Congress of American Indians released a report Monday that highlights the states, including some where photo identification will be required at the polls on Election Day. Two of the states — Alaska and Florida — do not list tribal ID cards as acceptable forms of identification at the polls. Problems with other new voter ID laws include requirements that voters provide their home addresses, since some tribal communities have no street addresses, and the “barriers of cost, logistics and distance to obtaining required IDs,” the study says.